The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The When In Roma Affair”

In Rome, Napoleon races through the outdoor seating area of a restaurant with a pair of THRUSH goons in hot pursuit. As the goons close in on him, he stops at a table and tucks a perfume atomizer containing a top-secret formula into a purse belonging to Darlene Sims (“The Foxes and Hounds Affair”’s lovely Julie Sommars), a meek young woman from Omaha who is visiting Italy with a tour group. This episode is pretty typical of season three, in which the plots were drawn with increasingly broad strokes, so we’ll never learn any concrete details about what the atomizer contains. It’s a formula, it’s top-secret, Napoleon has it, THRUSH wants it. That’s all the information anyone’s going to get. It’s probably all anyone needs, really.

The goons capture Napoleon and drag him off to a lavish palazzo owned by a louche count, Cesare Guardia, who, upon finding himself in dire financial straits, has reluctantly allied himself with THRUSH. Cesare is played by dashing Italian actor Cesare Danova, who gives a strangely nuanced and poignant performance while surrounded on all sides by the usual overcaffeinated third-season nonsense; it sometimes seems like he mistakenly wandered into the episode from the set of some somber, respectable drama filming simultaneously on the MGM lot. The effect is weird, but not unpleasant.

While THRUSH goons slap Napoleon around a bit, Cesare drinks fine wine and exchanges barbs with local THRUSH boss Bruno (Than Wyenn). Torturing Napoleon, while undeniably entertaining, fails to reveal anything interesting, so Bruno instructs his chief henchman Vito (veteran screen villain Sid Haig) to let their prisoner escape, hoping he’ll lead them directly to the location of the atomizer. Which, yep, is pretty much exactly how this plot unfolds, so that was a pretty good judgment call, Bruno.

Napoleon escapes from his captors in some part of the episode we don’t get to see. Bruised and grumpy, he returns to his hotel room, where he finds Illya hiding in the closet. They roll around on the floor together for a while, which is probably the very best part of the episode. 

Napoleon fills Illya in on his recent exploits. He mentions that his escape from THRUSH was suspiciously effortless, which suggests to him that THRUSH wanted him to get free so he could lead them to the atomizer. That’s a pretty good deduction! Nice spy work, Napoleon! He then promptly ruins the aforementioned nice spy work by failing to notice that Vito is listening at the door while he gabs on to Illya about how he stashed the atomizer in Darlene’s bag. While Napoleon rests up from his injuries, Illya heads off to find Darlene, unaware that Vito is one step ahead of him.

After discovering the mysterious atomizer in her purse, Darlene loans it to the woman in the adjoining hotel room, Mrs. Sparks (Kathleen Freeman), who is touring Rome with her husband, George (Stuart Nisbet), and their terminally bored son, Sammy (Billy Corcoran). While Darlene dines with Mr. and Mrs. Sparks, Illya tries to break into her room to search for the atomizer. He’s caught by young Sammy, who, upon finding a stranger trying to break down Darlene’s door, does the only sensible and reasonable thing: He threatens to yell for help unless Illya comes with him to his hotel room and reads him a bedtime story.

So Illya reads a book to Sammy (Captain Marvel and the Space Horse, which sounds sort of awesome), then tenderly tucks him into bed while muttering something about the sweet innocence of youth, because Illya’s icy, caustic exterior hides a fluffy marshmallow core.

With Sammy sound asleep, Illya searches Darlene’s room. Vito pops out from behind the curtains, wraps a rope around his neck, and throttles him unconscious.

When Vito fails to find the atomizer in Darlene’s room, Bruno sends in his secret weapon: Cesare, who slinks into the hotel restaurant, joins Darlene at her table, and proceeds to blast her with the full brunt of his charm. Unprepared for this onslaught, Darlene dissolves into a happy puddle.

Napoleon heads to Darlene’s room to search for his missing partner and finds him locked in a broom closet. Illya spends much of this episode stashed in various closets.

Cesare and Darlene spend a romantic evening together. While sitting in a moonlit park with him, a smitten Darlene gives a fumbling, heartbreaking speech about how, while Cesare is everything she’s ever dreamed about in a suitor, she's genuinely baffled and maybe a little suspicious about what he could possibly see in her: “I’m not rich, I’m not sophisticated, I’m not wise, and no one has ever said, ‘Hey, wow, she’s beautiful!’” This is one of only two scripts written by women in The Man From U.N.CL.E.’s hundred-episode run, which maybe helps explain Darlene’s high level of self-awareness. It’s not a particularly notable episode, but Darlene seems like a real person. 

While Cesare assures Darlene he’s genuinely infatuated with her, Vito and Bruno sneak up and steal her purse. They’re ambushed by Napoleon and Illya, who beat them to a pulp. They search the purse for the atomizer and come up empty-handed.

The next morning, Napoleon and Illya drop by Darlene’s hotel room to return her purse and ask for the atomizer, which she had tossed in the trash. The hotel’s garbage has already been collected, so Illya and Napoleon hijack a tour bus and head off to the dump to search for it.

Upon reaching the dump, they stare at the piles of garbage for a while, then shrug and call Mr. Waverly to tell him they’re not going to bother to look for the atomizer any further. “We seem to have bungled very badly, Mr. Solo,” Mr. Waverly tells Napoleon gravely, his sonorous tone reverberating with a lifetime of disappointment in his two beautiful, charming, lazy, terminally incompetent top agents.

Acting on Bruno’s orders, Cesare reluctantly takes Darlene to the palazzo and hands her over to Vito and Bruno, who inject her with truth serum and interrogate her about the missing atomizer.

Having lost their best chance of regaining the top-secret formula, Illya and Napoleon return to Darlene’s hotel to protect her from THRUSH. Upon spotting Illya, Sammy exclaims to his parents, “He was my babysitter last night! He read me to sleep!” Mr. and Mrs. Sparks seem strangely unbothered by the knowledge that a strange man might’ve been in their hotel room with their young son while they were dining in the restaurant. I know this show is a full half-century old, but sometimes it seems like it exists in another universe as well.

After learning that Darlene has left with Cesare, Illya and Napoleon hijack the tour bus again and speed off to the palazzo, with the entire Sparks family coming along for the ride. Illya and Napoleon break into the palazzo. They’re promptly captured by Vito, who locks them up in the dungeon in the usual improbable and vaguely kinky manner: He forces Illya to kneel under the blade of a guillotine, then chains Napoleon up from the ceiling, his feet barely touching the lever that operates the  blade. If Napoleon moves his feet off of the lever, the blade will drop, killing Illya. Anxious to save Darlene from THRUSH’s clutches, Cesare heads down to the dungeon and frees Napoleon and Illya from their predicament.

Napoleon, Illya, and Cesare mount an attack against Vito and Bruno. While Napoleon and Illya commence with the usual ferocious onslaught of judo throws, uppercuts, and karate chops, Cesare takes a bullet to the chest to protect Darlene.

And then it turns out young Sammy had the atomizer in his pocket the whole time, having swiped it out of Darlene’s trash can.

At U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, Mr. Waverly pins a medal on a fully-recovered Cesare, who announces his plan to go to Omaha with Darlene to meet her parents. It’s a perfectly lovely ending…

…which is then immediately ruined: A buxom female U.N.C.L.E. agent waltzes into the office to deliver some files, and Cesare abandons Darlene to pant and leer after her. While Darlene looks increasingly miserable, Illya and Napoleon decide to be a couple of big, smug dicks about her obvious heartbreak. “Do you suppose they’ll live happily ever after?” Illya mutters to his partner. Napoleon smirks in reply.

Oof. Awful. You were doing pretty well, Man From U.N.C.L.E., and then you crapped it up at the last minute. For shame.


Could we perhaps say that Illya spends a lot of time in this episode coming out of the closet? Well, I will, because it makes me happy. I think Illya’s closet moments, and his reading the bedtime story to that interminable brat, (oh, and Illya in the guillotine, again. I forgot about that) are the best bits in this episode. I find Darlene vapid and annoying, and so her romance with Cesare doesn’t strike home as it should, and yes, the plot (what plot?) is pretty ropey, and Napoleon’s spy work is not A1. I’m generally kinder about these boys’ spy work than you, but I’ll concede here that he was a bit stupid. On an unrelated note, I seem to recall a remarkably self-aware line in this episode when Illya and Napoleon crash the car, and Napoleon asks Illya if he’s all right, and Illya says ‘I’m always all right.’ Which he is, overall, apart from short hurt-comfort stints.
This was a bit of a stinker of an episode. I really only watch it for the good Illya bits.
Thank you so much, by the way, for your words about my writing on the other post. It’s so lovely to hear these things. Also you reminded me to go back to Chrome and Gunmetal and upload a whole lot of things I hadn’t yet.
Also, thank you for making me smile on a terrible day.
Morgan Richter said…
Illya and the closet! Both closets! Absolutely the best part of this middle-of-the-pack episode.

Heh. I was just tickled to see you pop up on Chrome & Gunmetal -- "Ah! That's why the name sounded familiar!" And I'm delighted to hear you've uploaded new stuff -- I'll go visit today and check it out.
Well, I hope you enjoy :) I put all my stuff on AO3, slash and non-slash. All my non slash is really closet slash :D
Morgan Richter said…
(I'm so sorry your comments keep double- or triple-posting today! It's not you, it's Blogger, which does this all the damn time; sooner or later, it happens to everyone.) Good to hear! I'll check out AO3, too. Last time I was over there looking at the MFU category, I had to stop because I kept running into stories that the authors were insisting could be viewed as either TV-verse or movie-verse, which I think is nonsense, as Napoleon and (especially) Illya in the movie bear zero similarity to their original TV counterparts.

Heh. I mean, the entire TV show is really closet slash, so that makes sense.
I don't think the comments are triple posting my end at least.
I haven't seen the film and I'm not sure I want to. I've read a couple of film based fics. Sometimes I can make them work in my mind, but not always. Illya being tall - can't get my head round that. Illya will always be dinky. And how could Napoleon be anyone but Robert Vaughn?

Sometimes I think the TV show isn't even such closet slash. Some of it seems so blatant. I mean, the mind reader gets Illya to think of something very secret, so he instantly thinks of Napoleon. All those times they flirt, Napoleon's preference for blonds, Illya's quiet seething wherever Napoleon has a woman on his arm. Sometimes it can be a stretch to see slash in something, but not here.
Morgan Richter said…
Yeah, everyone's comments are double- and triple-posting today; I'm just weeding out the duplicates manually as soon as they come in. I'll leave this last one up so you can see what it's doing. It's a glitch that sometimes happens. No idea what causes it, no idea how to prevent it.

The UNCLE movie was not my thing at all, though people whose opinions I respect enjoyed it, so your mileage may very well vary. It was just too weird seeing Illya having anger-management issues (really, that's his whole character: he has explosive anger-management issues), and I'm not much of a Henry Cavill fan. (On the positive side, Hugh Grant makes an oddly fitting and very charming Waverly).

The overtones are really pretty blatant at times. In particular, any episode written by the great Peter Allan Fields (Foxes and Hounds, Concrete Overcoat, Fiddlesticks, Nazarone, Ultimate Computer, See Paris, et cetera) is going to be chockablock with suggestive Illya-Napoleon moments, all the flirting and pet names and jealousy. Fields went on to write for the very slashy Xena and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, so, y'know, I'm guessing that was intentional. And of course the crazy, weird chemistry between Vaughn and McCallum certainly helped further the slashy agenda.
Ah yes, the preview of my comment was there and I'm having to 'edit' it into this new one.

Illya with anger management issues... Illya has snark management issues and he's moody, but it's not the same thing. He's very controlled.

I do love the thought that the slashiness was intentional. My husband keeps saying there was a bit on the DVD extras where they said about having a lot of gay fanmail and playing to that dynamic, but I don't remember it. It's such a blessing that Vaughn and McCallum have such wonderful chemistry. It works so perfectly. And Napoleon, I feel (and Vaughn too, I feel) seems like one of those people who would be up for doing any crazy thing, anything to make people stare, purely for the kick. Really they're both such complex characters when they could be clichés, and that's down to the actors. I haven't seen Robert Vaughn in much, but I've been working my way through McCallum's stuff and it amazes me how different he is in everything.How he could go from Illya to Simon Carter to Dan Westin and then Steel, and always seem like a different person. I admit I'm biased, but I was always biased any Leonard Nimoy too, and I couldn't say the same for him.
montereysnow said…
This is my first time posting here or anywhere else for that matter.
I just wanted to say I have been reading your posts since last winter and enjoy everyone of them every week.

I started watching Man from Uncle last year after not seeing it since the 1960's.
After a few episodes, I realized what I didn't when I was twelve, that these guys are terrible spies. I think it really hit me in The Adriatic Express Affair when they set their cell on fire without waiting to see if the drunk girl would return with the seltzer water.Anyway, I was delighted to find your like minded posts.

Morgan Richter said…
Aconitum -- yeah, the movie version of Illya having explosive anger issues (I mean, that was his whole character: he was angry and violent and out of control, despite having good intentions) just seemed like a serious misstep to me. Snark management issues, absolutely.

montereysnow -- thank you so much for posting! I'm glad you're enjoying the recaps. Oh, yeah, Illya and Napoleon are absolutely terrible spies! I adore them both, but Waverly should've fired them, or at least assigned them to desk duty, years ago. Setting their cell on fire was an amazing decision...
MrsSpooky said…
I'm going to diverge from the general consensus here and reveal that this is one of my favorite season 3 episodes. At least I thought it was the funniest. I chalk it up to being quite fond of comedy of errors type stories which describes this episode. :)

I thought, despite some things that didn't quite gel for me either (hated that bit at the end, Cesare and Darlene, and yeah, our favorite spies are rather incompetent), I get a kick out of this. I found myself laughing through most of it.

Even if it wasn't the best of episodes, it wasn't the worst. It made me laugh and I loved the wit in the dialog.

Morgan Richter said…
MrsSpooky -- apart from that terrible last scene, I think fondly of this episode, especially by the lower standards of season three). It's totally unnecessary and inessential, but it's cute.
vintagehoarder said…
I finally got around to watching this one, and I quite enjoyed it. Sure, I wouldn't put it in my top ten episodes, but Darlene and her fellow tourists were credible innocents, and the perfume atomizer was a neat mcguffin. I've got to agree though, that last scene left a sour taste in my mouth.

One thing I've been wondering as I watch these episodes, is, if Napoleon and Illya are U.N.C.L.E.'s top spies, what must its lower-ranked agents be like? I'm surprised that THRUSH hasn't taken over the world by now!

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